Racetracks are boring. Race on rollercoasters.
Now, that’s a bit sensationalistic, I’ll admit it. But hey, what stands at the heart of our track design is not too far from this statement. Why race on a motorway, when your ally is infinite magnetic power? You can tilt curves to impossible angles, take on vertical slopes, twist the road as much as you like. It would be foolish, given the context, not to rely on the vertigo effect that a rollercoaster-like track can generate. Like in the turn below, where the road is angled slightly more than 90° to the left and points straight down for an inverse 180° turn.
That’s not a super hard turn, though. You’ll approach it with good speed due to the previous fast section: you just need to keep that trigger pulled feeding max throttle, slightly adjusting your ship’s trajectory to the right, rely on your magnetic stabilisers to keep you attached to the track, accept that you will have no visibility on what comes after the slope, and get prepared to hit the brakes as soon as you get to see the follow-up 45° right turn that will send your ship roaring downhill inside a massive ice cave.
Of course, of course. Riding a rollercoaster and racing a car are two very different things. For starter, one is a passive experience, while the other is very much proactive. One is about pure Ilinx, leaving control out of the equation; the other is about the joyous difficulty and the inherent risk of controlling power. Red:Out wants to be a racing game, so that must be kept into account. In short, there must be space for both: Ilinx sections, spinning our racer’s head around, and Agon sections, where space is given to racers to let their skills show through control. Trackmania is a great example of this: a game that makes it equally interesting to run on an oval-shaped track, looking for the perfect trajectory, and to race on acrobatic circuits, just looking to land inside the track on the next jump. What a great racing game that is.
There is an excellent piece by Parker Kligerman on how a racing track should look like. When he describes the sensations of a professional driver when approaching a steep, challenging turn in Mosport Park, he just gives the shivers.
Turn two is one of the most famous corners in all of racing and is truly death-defying each time, as you approach it up a hill you realize you’re looking into the sky, another wall directly to the inside and a wall directly to your outside, you drag your left front tire as close to the inside wall as you can stand and suddenly realize you are dropping what feels like 5 stories to the bottom and before you even can process what has just happened you are fighting to feed more throttle as it compresses at the bottom of the hill and causes the car to gain über grip.
How to achieve such a great effect? Don’t overthink it, he says. Don’t concern yourself with measures, where to put the audience, how to make it flat enough. Just follow the landscape, and make it hard.
“[…] the original design was so fluid that when Sir Stirling Moss came to visit, during the building phase, he had them create what is now “Moss Corner” because it would take greater “driver skill.” Nothing about numbers, run-off or safety. The only concern was that it would be harder. That’s how you build a racetrack.”
A single track is a game level, a single race has its own pacing and flow. Track design must account for that, giving space and time to recover between difficult or particularly acrobatic sections. Each turn or change in inclination is intended to add up to the feelings of speed, vertigo, or control. However, as Kligerman points out, we try to avoid overthinking.
The design process goes something like this. Lay down an idea for the environment – obviously pencil on paper. Have a clear idea of the sensations you want to emphasise for the track – is it about control, vertigo, long straight sections for power-up focus, a panoramic walk in the park? Lay down an initial section of the track, place a starting point. Sketch some interesting blocks that would build tension up, and connect them with some more relaxed recovery sections, based on the shape on the environment. For example, the sketch above is for an Alaska map heavily based on long flying jumps. It’s meant to be placed over the sea, running around and over some giant iceberg blocks: the connection sections are long, wide-radius turns, or heavily banked parabolics.
Once the sketch is done, it’s assembled in-engine. Then it’s test-drive time. Ride around, see how it feels in relation to the design goals. Adjust where needed. The environment artists tailor the landscape around the track a bit, filling up sections that feel visually empty, adding landmarks and interesting locations. Once that’s done, the track is reviewed to better fit the new environment, eventually getting changed/tweaked. Pass the ball back and forth a few times, until you get something that works.
The progression in difficulty from track to track and the differences in track design between each environment will not be mentioned here, as those topics deserve their own post.
Anything else you’d like us to consider? Got any feedback? Do let us know! Leave a comment here, tweet us @redoutgame, go find our facebook page, or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are making this game for gamers, like you. This is the time you can have a say in how it will become.
Phew. We had a bit of an August break, just the time we needed to catch our breath. Some of us are still on holiday, but we’ll be back soon enough with developer diary entry covering July and August. And who knows, maybe a blog post about our holidays as well. Pictures of pale skin ensured. Stay tuned.